Review: While Raden Ajeng Kartini, hailed as the symbol of women emancipation and empowerment in Indonesia, has always been a timeless subject; Hanung Bramantyo’s Kartini surprisingly comes at the most relevant moment – when feminism movement is on the wild run; when rift between the conservative and the progressive is on the edge; when discrimination and patriarchal superiority suddenly awaken from their dormant state – clinching its factual relevance to modern day audiences as more than just a ‘glorified depiction’ of a real-life figure.
Kartini revolves around specific period of the titular character’s life: during her ‘pingitan’ or glorified seclusion. Kartini (Dian Sastrowardoyo), an aristocrat by birth, is bound to be a ‘raden ayu’ – glorified wife/concubine of aristocrats – when she has grown enough. To become one, she must enter ‘pingitan’ ever since her coming of age; she must get secluded from outside world to prepare her to be a perfect woman.
From inside the ‘pingitan’, Kartini viably learns from books she gets from Raden Mas Kartono (Reza Rahardian), who tells her that “bodies might be buried or burnt, but mind cannot be confined.” Amused by progressiveness and empowerment of women depicted in those books, Kartini begins to reflect on the life of women in her surrounding – inside the palace and outside it. From there, her inclination towards women emancipation arises. Kartini, along with her two sisters, Roekmini (Acha Septriasa) and Kardinah (Ayushita), ‘Het Klaverblad’ or Clover Leaves sister, begins to make some changes – a foundation of Kartini’s later movement.
Narrowing the scope to such period, Kartini is focused on exquisitely rich socio-cultural and socio-political subtexts to give meaning to Kartini’s struggle. Reflected from those subtexts, we learn that women are depicted as exotic birds in cage and worth no more than a laying hen. Political marriage and dominant patriarchal system have reduced women’s value before men. Hanung meticulously juxtaposes that depiction with Kartini’s motivation to correctly (although not profoundly) underlie the character’s feminism background and eventual movement. This care-induced feminism surprisingly drives the plot, which culminates in the biopic’s sentimental climax.
Kartini is depicted as a kind of women whose curiosity has opened her mind; she often needs clarification that her deed is correct in all aspects. She once asks her penpal whether or not she’s a feminist; she interviewed women from rural areas; and, even, she asks a chaplain whether her idea is against God’s will. Highlighted for relationship with other women around her, Kartini does not aim for her greatest achievement, but rather smaller acts that lead to that.
After all, it is a story about women in general. Kartini is surrounded by influential women, who shaped her thought and urgency. From her estranged birth mother, Ngasirah (Nova Eliza and Christine Hakim respectively), she learns about ‘bakti’ – devotion. From her legal mother, R.A. Moeryam (Djenar Maesa Ayu), she learns about unrequited love, the fruit of political marriage. From her Het Klaverblad sisters, she learns about optimism. While learning from women, what ignites her fire are, ironically, men – her father, R.M. Ario Sosroningrat (Deddy Soetomo) and R.M. Kartono. In wise thought, this might mean that feminism can go hand in hand with people, regardless the gender if not sensitively misread.
As a picture, Kartini is an irresistibly exquisite one. Everything in frame – from set decorations, sophisticatedly lovely costumes (by the one and only, Retno Ratih Damayanti), and blocking – juxtaposes into making a factual depiction of retro-Java. Symbolisms are scattered here and there swept beautifully by Faozan Rizal’s elegantly low-key cinematography. Hanung and Bagus Bramasti’s script delves deep into the ancient Javanese tradition and makes it digestible to wider audiences; in fact, dialogues spoken in loose Javanese language is proven not to be a mere gimmick. Some beautiful and specific vocabulary and elements are meticulously chosen to define certain situation (despite their simplified translation) with cultural flavor attached.
While it’s a beautiful at most aspects, Kartini often falls into melodrama mode when things went sentimental. On positive light, this magnifies Hanung’s prowess in directing the star-studded cast, action-wise; yet, on negative light, it marks slight disbelief in the language of visuals and simplicity. In regards to this, some scenes could’ve been trimmed down and let the visuals tell the story to give way to other substantial points to get profoundly highlighted.
Also, note that, as a film with rich subtexts, Kartini takes too much time to explain those subtexts and expose the meaning as a mere presentation before audiences. Hanung could’ve removed some superfluous textual explanation and let audiences string up pieces of information, which has already been made digestible by the slick script. In my very humble opinion, Hanung Bramantyo could’ve been more confident in letting audiences grasping some strong, culture-heavy subtexts (e.g., Kartini’s first prerequisite – a strong and heartfelt one) to create sense of achievement.
In the end, Kartini is an important blockbuster biopic, which is exquisitely made, beautifully shot, and expertly staged, despite being weighed down by disbelief in the language of visuals and simplicity as well as its penchant to over-dramatize.